Dumbing Down Education Again

Is there any limit at all on how far do-gooders are willing to dumb down our educational system in the name of helping students feel good about themselves? I rarely agree with anyone from Fox News on anything, but this opinion piece by Joanne Jacobs is pretty much on the mark. First, it reports on a plan by some California schools to do away with the D grade, with anything below a C- garnering a failing grade. Good idea, I'd say, but some parents aren't too happy:

"I'd rather go to a junior college,'' said Alex Johnson, a junior at Mountain View High who is eyeing Foothill or De Anza community colleges. He says it's unfair that some teachers at his school are widening the range for an F. His dad isn't thrilled either.

"D's are the only thing keeping him from getting F's,'' Alex's dad, Doug Johnson, said. "He's an incredibly bright kid, but he couldn't care less about school.''

Well, Alex's dad, Alex is going to have to work a little hard to make sure he doesn't fail. If he's "incredibly bright", he should only have to turn off his Playstation for another hour or so a day to squeak by. I'm guessing he'll survive. But frankly, it would be amusing to see him using a similar rationalization in the real world while working a job. He's incredibly capable of doing the work, you see, but he doesn't feel like it. And how terribly unfair it is of his boss to not just let him coast along without putting any effort into his job. Another slacker is born, apparently with the full support of his father. Warms the heart, doesn't it?

We can at least take solace in the fact that his principal is a reasonably responsible adult, since his father clearly is not:

Principal Murchison said young people need to learn that sub-standard work is not OK in the real world.

"I'm fixing my kitchen right now,'' Murchison said. "I'm not going to pay a guy $5,000 for 'D work'.''

I must say, I'm a bit shocked at Mr. Murchison's response. Most public school administrators seem to be far more interested in making sure everyone passes because that's typically a major factor in the amount of state funding they receive. This is one of the major causes for the pervasive dumbing down of public school education all over the country, and at all levels. Another is the self-esteem fetish that has developed. Witness the reaction to this idea:

Instead of requiring high school students to pass a graduation exam, Delaware decided to award three levels of diplomas: basic, standard and distinguished. The levels are based on students' performance on state reading, math and writing tests given in 10th grade. Some 52 percent of students are in line for only a basic diploma, 40 percent for standard and only 8 percent for distinguished.

Now while I disagree with the basis they are using for this distinction (basing it upon a single test at a single point in their education is foolish), the reaction to it has instead focused on the mere fact that they are daring to make such distinctions between students:

"Eventually, with a good study, they will find it furthers the aura of separation of these kids when, ultimately, you want them to feel that they are just as good as their counterparts," said Hector Figueroa, education director for the Urban League...

Robert Andrzejewski, head of the Red Clay school district, said the system will not motivate students as legislators insisted it would.

"One of the worst things you can do to kids with low self-esteem, who are often of low-income anyway, is show them failure," he said. "So many of those students have experienced failure in their lives and there comes a point when they decide they have to save face for themselves, and, unfortunately, that may mean they drop out."

This, dear readers, is a recipe for inculcating mediocrity and failure among our youth. If they can't meet the standards, we'll just lower the standards so they'll feel good about themselves. Has it ever occured to these people that in the real world, there is no such desire to make sure everyone feels good about themselves despite their lack of ability or effort? Any business owner who evaluated their employees with more concern for their self-esteem than for their ability or willingness to do the job would quickly find himself out of business. So rather than preparing students for later success, the self-esteem fetishists are intent on insulating them from reality.

Allowing these people anywhere near educational policy is a huge mistake. They are clearly incapable of distinguishing what they wish to be true from what is true. Truth is that which does not change just because you want it to. And no matter how much they may desire to live in Lake Wobegon (where all the students are above average), that's still a fictional place. If you're really worried about self-esteem, then challenge the students. When they work hard to meet that challenge and succeed, their self-esteem will soar. You get self-esteem from accomplishment, not from adults lying to you and telling you you're just as good as those who work harder than you, or are more talented in that area than you are.

In my experience, the quality of education is bad enough for those who are getting good grades. I went to what was allegedly one of the best public schools in the state of Michigan. The one thing that I left with was a sense of the pervasive mediocrity that infused virtually every aspect of that school system. In 4 years of college prep work, I had a total of two really good teachers. Two teachers who actually had passion for the subject they taught and who both inspired and challenged their students. The rest appeared to be just putting in their time waiting for summer vacation. Unfortunately, even for those few really good teachers, the bulk of students generally cared only about making sure they had memorized the right things for the test, with little thought to whether they actually understood the subject. Technical proficency, not real education, was the goal in which the bulk of teachers and students were co-consipirators.

In my high school, there were only two required courses for seniors, government and economics. Government was taught by the basketball coach, economics by the baseball coach. In the government class, we watched a lot of filmstrips and movies. I recall the government teacher/jock in charge not knowing that James Madison had originally opposed a bill of rights and telling me I was wrong when I mentioned it in a class discussion. I also recall having to explain to the econ teacher what an econometric formula was. And this school had, as I recall, the third highest state test scores in the state at the time for public schools. And for crying out loud, this was 19 years ago. It's even worse today. There has to be an end somewhere. At some point, we have to stop this snowball of mediocrity and demand that the schools do their job.

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Is young Mr. Johnson somehow under the impression that he won't be given a failing grade or held to any sort of academic standard at a junior college? The only thing that usually prevents me from giving "D" or "F" grades is the policy that allows students to drop a course with a "W" grade up until a week before finals.

Just noticing? It has unfortunately been true for nearly a quarter of a century now that the only place in many public schools that a meritocracy prevails is in the athletic programs. You don't do the work, you don't perform at minimally required levels, you don't get to be on the team. Oddly, few in the schools seem especially worried about what this does to the self-esteem of those not chosen.
I just came from a state that has played the "standards" charade at least twice. It came up with "exit" standards in basic areas [math, science, history, reading], kitted out an exam to establish levels of acheivement in each of those areas, and decreed that students not reaching the minimum level decided on would not graduate, regardless of the number of hours of HS work they had accumulated. Then they ran the exams, sometimes on a non-binding basis first, and concluded that a politically unacceptable level of kids was going to fail them... especially the math portion, but the reading portion as well. And of course they scaled back the "passing" requirements when parents [and voters] screamed. And brought lawsuits. And scream and sue they did. They wanted their children to have diplomas. Not necessarily educations.
Tis a tale that could be told for state after state after state I think. Granted, we could debate the wisdom of having high-stakes exit exams. Or unwisdom. But my point is, whatever system you put in to try to tie graduation to actual achievement in education, if a politically sensitive number of students fail such assessments and are told they cannot walk on graduation day, the public pressure to do away with the standards entirely or at least to water them down becomes politically irresistable.
The reading level reqired for graduation from HS in one of these state exit exam systems I looked at was an eighth grade reading level. For graduation from high school. No, I am not making this up.

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 02 May 2004 #permalink

Just noticing? It has unfortunately been true for nearly a quarter of a century now that the only place in many public schools that a meritocracy prevails is in the athletic programs. You don't do the work, you don't perform at minimally required levels, you don't get to be on the team. Oddly, few in the schools seem especially worried about what this does to the self-esteem of those not chosen.

No, I'm not just noticing this. I've been ranting about this for many years. I frankly think it's been going on since WW2. I put the blame for this largely on the effects of the GI Bill, which doubled the percentage of Americans going to post-secondary schools. That flood of money helped convert a thousand barber schools and teacher's colleges into "universities". But of course, twice as many people did not magically become able to do college-level work at that point in time. Schools faced the choice of either failing students, which would have killed off the cash cow, or lowering the standards to get them through.

I think you make an excellent point about sports teams. Where is this handwringing over self-esteem when kids don't make the football team because they're not good enough?

I just came from a state that has played the "standards" charade at least twice. It came up with "exit" standards in basic areas [math, science, history, reading], kitted out an exam to establish levels of acheivement in each of those areas, and decreed that students not reaching the minimum level decided on would not graduate, regardless of the number of hours of HS work they had accumulated. Then they ran the exams, sometimes on a non-binding basis first, and concluded that a politically unacceptable level of kids was going to fail them... especially the math portion, but the reading portion as well. And of course they scaled back the "passing" requirements when parents [and voters] screamed. And brought lawsuits. And scream and sue they did. They wanted their children to have diplomas. Not necessarily educations.

Ah, true in my experience as well. By and large, the parents just want little Johnny to come home with decent grades regardless of whether they're actually learning or being prepared for their future. And whenever I see the griping about how this or that group is going to be disproportionately hit by this sort of thing, I keep waiting for someone to break down the numbers between those with blue eyes and those with green eyes, or those with big feet vs small feet. Individuals achieve or don't achieve. Their membership in a superficial category has little bearing on whether they do.

The reading level reqired for graduation from HS in one of these state exit exam systems I looked at was an eighth grade reading level. For graduation from high school. No, I am not making this up.

I believe you. There is one famous study by a Cornell professor where he looked at the language difficulty in textbooks from 1865 to 1990. He determined that the reading level of textbooks for honors level classes in 1990 was about equal to the 8th grade textbooks prior to WW2.

Intersting piece Ed.

On a related note,I sat next to a young physician/cardiologist born in Pakistan on a recent flight. He spoke perfect English, he had attended Stanford on a scholarship. He was taking his first vacation in two years. Not wishing to bring up his work on his vacation,I asked him if he minded discussing cardiology, as I find biology in general fascinating.
His reply was that he loved discussing science of any kind, at any time. In fact his destination was San Diego, where he was planning on speaking at a medical conference and then flying on to Belize to do some pro-bono work for poor folks living their. Tha's how he was spending his vacation.

I asked him what he thought of the US and he enthusiastically replied that he loved living here, his colleages and neighbors were wonderful. Then he paused, and said with some hesitation (He was a very polite gentlemen) that the one thing he didn't understand was America's attitude towards science and mathematics. He was genuinely puzzled how the world's greatest superpower, a status arguably achieved in large part by encouraging and embracing the applications of science, could be so blase about science education in our K-12 grades.

Ed, you recently had an interesting article on violence in America and asked your readers to volunteer possible explanations for that trend.
Perhaps a similar topic inquiring as to why Americans seem to downplay the importance of science and mathematics might be appropriate. Frankly, I have no idea.

regards,
~DS~

Not wholly unrelated: NYT today has a longish piece headlined "US Is Losing Its Dominance In The Sciences." The suspicion of course is that the decline in math and science education over the long term [and more recent fundamentalist-based assults on science education?] are part at least of the explanation. I have no idea if this is so or not. Link to the story:

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/05/03/science/03RESE.html?hp

By flatlander100 (not verified) on 03 May 2004 #permalink

One advantage of the US system is that it leaves latitude for original extra-curricular thought in those so inclined. In Taiwanese elementary and middle schools, my wife was expected to go to after school tutoring, which not state mandated, but was paid for by her parents and taught by her classroom teachers. Those teachers used the social pressure of Taiwanese society to fill their tutoring rosters. The sessions amounted to little more than supervised homework and extra workbook activities. When my wife refused to go in 5th grade (and still made 2nd in her class), the teacher put her on all the crappy classroom clean up duties. I am thankful every day I did not have those formative experiences, or I would likely not have continued for a HS diploma, to say nothing of a Ph.D.

As an American born grad student in P-Chem, I was in the minority, well behind Chinese and Russians. Indians came in at about equal numbers to US born (and I am counting American Born Chinese as Americans). The Americans and Russians were disproportionately represented in the cadre of the best students because they pursued the subject with passion and imagination, and not rote learning. The Russians came from a culture that worshipped Physics (and in which Physical science provided one of the only arenas for unsupervised thought), and we Americans were just plain geeks. We were mostly the backyard experimenters: model rocket-launching, HAM radio-building nerds from HS.

I’ve observed the Japanese and Chinese systems first hand, and I’m not impressed with the results. I do admire their discipline in the younger years, though. I think that the best system would be a Japanese-style “learn-this-or-forever-shame-your-parents” school until about 6th grade, then a gradual loosening of discipline to encourage independent thought. However, the content in HS should be densely filled – I had similar experiences to Ed in HS with the jocks teaching History: one was droning on about the birth of modern political thought, and had not read Machiavelli. “The Prince” is what, 100 pages? Idiot.

On another note, science teaching needs to be revamped to allow students to repeat classic experiments, to form and test hypotheses without knowing the “answers”. Unfortunately even AP students have very little experience with the real scientific method upon leaving HS. That is true pretty much around the world.

Of course, it would be ideal for all of our kids to graduate high school with a 12th grade reading level and 4 years of math including pre-calculus. But, given that we are not going to meet those standards, what can we do? Even in a high school diploma means nothing more than the student showed up and managed not to get kicked out and perhaps some actual education leaked in during that time, would that be so bad? It it better to refuse diplomas to up to 20% of the students who stuck it out?

With all of the school efforts going to make sure that as many kids as possible pass whatever watered-down standards there are, we've put all our education funds into trying to make everyone as average as possible. That can't be good.

Statistically speaking, unless one has a wildly skewed distribution, about half the kids will be below average in any measure you define. Similarly, half of the schools will be below average. Rather than beating ourselves up about this unavoidable statistical result, we should live with it.

A high school diploma alrady means very little. If someone wants to make more than the median income, they need some kind of higher education. We should face it, an eigth grade reading level is no so bad. Someone with an eigth grade reading level can read and understand a newspaper. They can read an understand consumer contracts which are supposed to score at an eigth grade level. They are far from functional illeteracy. They can work and live productive lives in this society.

DS writes: "I asked him what he thought of the US and he enthusiastically replied that he loved living here, his colleagues and neighbors were wonderful. Then he paused, and said with some hesitation (He was a very polite gentlemen) that the one thing he didn't understand was America's attitude towards science and mathematics. He was genuinely puzzled how the world's greatest superpower, a status arguably achieved in large part by encouraging and embracing the applications of science, could be so blase about science education in our K-12 grades."

I think that the ascendancy of the Christian right reveals a deeply anti-science bias at the very heart of American culture. I have a pretty good feel for this, having been born there. If you a forced for ideological reasons to reject a major finding of science--say, evolution by natural selection--it causes a great deal of cognitive dissonance to then accept other findings. Are the anti-evolutionists also anti-Copernicans? Some of them do appear to be anti-Einsteinians. Still, most of them comfortably use the technological fruits of science without a qualm. The only intellectual consistent thing for anti-evolutionists to do would be to adopt an Amish-like rejection of science & technology.

I remember years ago having an argument with a very smart student. I had made a disparaging remark about creationists & he accused me of unjustified bias. His position wasn't Christian, but vulgar relativism: Who was I to set myself up as knowing the truth? I think this attitude, even among the secular, is what allows anti-evolutionists to claim "equal time." My response to the student was two-fold: 1) It wasn't just me setting myself up as having the truth--I was relying on generations of work that led to my position. 2) You can go ahead & believe whatever thing you want--it's a free country--but you cut yourself off from the intellectual life of your culture by rejecting well-established scientific ideas. Your choice.

But the reason American don't care about science is that even the non-religious in the US are saturated with religious nonsense. And it is a particular kind of religious nonsense that insists on its sovereignty over science.

Joseph,

"My response to the student was two-fold: 1) It wasn't just me setting myself up as having the truth--I was relying on generations of work that led to my position. 2) You can go ahead & believe whatever thing you want--it's a free country--but you cut yourself off from the intellectual life of your culture by rejecting well-established scientific ideas. Your choice."

Good response! I'm laughing a little (at myself mostly) because I've just been giving you a hard time in another thread, about attributing too much 'certainty' to scientists. No doubt that kid wandered off muttering to himself about hubris and certainty and Kuhnian paradigms...